On my favorite holiday list, Thanksgiving has long run neck-and-neck with Christmas for top honors. True, it doesn’t involve gifts or a lighted Christmas tree, but Thanksgiving features the three ingredients most important to me—family, fun, and feasting.
Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around our November gatherings. Thanksgiving was the one time of year every aunt, uncle, and first, second, and third cousin living in a 30-mile radius descended upon my cousin’s farm in Hamilton, Illinois. For Mom, my sister, and me that meant venturing “over the river” (the Mississippi)—though we didn’t need to travel “through the woods.”
We always entered the farmhouse through the back porch and kitchen, where the smell of roasting turkey made me go weak in the knees. Of course, my sister and I were shooed outside after we helped carry in our contributions to the feast—Mom’s scalloped oysters and that year’s version of a fancy cake. I should note here that no substitutions were allowed. Every relative was expected to contribute the same fixings year after year. I’m not sure what year this menu was fixed but it never deviated.
That meant the morning of Thanksgiving we always helped Mom roll saltine crackers between sheets of wax paper to make crumbs and we fingered slimy oysters in search of hidden shell fragments before she assembled her oyster casserole. Mom did vary what cake she provided in the battered 9 x 13-inch aluminum pan with sliding lid that was part of our travel arsenal. Mom searched newspapers and magazines for festive cake recipes, which never involved icing but were nonetheless rich and gooey. Assignments for other relatives included cranberry salad, creamed corn, lima beans, green beans, made-from-scratch dinner rolls, boatloads of gravy, pumpkin pies, and my Cousin Alma’s famous pecan pies. Ah, yes, Alma’s pies (drool here) topped with real whipped cream.
I know this is a shocker for younger generations, but the entire day—and early evening (we couldn’t leave without turkey sandwiches)—was spent without watching TV, playing video games, texting, Facebooking or tweeting.
What did we do? Rode ponies (and pigs, but that’s another story). Chased chickens. Cuddled kittens—there always seemed to be a new litter hiding in the hay in the barn. We also walked through the fields, and searched for (and always found) geodes in the stream bed. Later we smashed the geodes on the sidewalk to see the pretty glitter inside.
I know memory is a funny thing. But I never recall any of my relatives quarreling. I only remember the laughter and the intoxicating smells. I live hundreds of miles away from that farm today. But I’m thankful that most Thanksgiving, we’ll have up to a dozen people at our dinner table. We’ll go outside for walks, and, weather depending, maybe take a boat ride. I’m also thankful I have Alma’s recipe for pecan pie—a dish I’m required to provide year after year.